—Originally published 4.23.04
As a general rule, I don't watch movies aired on television unless it's 4 a.m. and I can't sleep. I can't stand to see a film "edited for content" or chopped up to squeeze in a few more commercials.
Case in point, a few weeks ago some cable station (it may have been USA, but I can't remember now), showed Kevin Smith's "Mallrats." Not his best work, no doubt, but still amusing -- and, of course, full of profanity. Like it or not, cursing is one of Smith's trademarks.
I watched about a half hour, just to see the first scene with lovable foul-mouthed loafs Jay and Silent Bob. After two lines of Jason Mewes' (Jay) dialogue, I promptly turned off the set in utter frustration.
You see, Jay utters so many curse words throughout "Mallrats" (as well as "Clerks," "Dogma," etc.) bleeping him would have left a gaping hole in the soundtrack. So they got some dope to do a horrible Jay impression and overdubbed the dialogue. It was painful.
For this reason, I won't be watching "Sex and the City" in June when reruns of HBO's landmark comedy series start playing on TBS.
I don't know how much of the original "Sex" will make it on to the "superstation," but it certainly won't be everything, even though cable networks like Comedy Central and FX have been stretching the profanity limit for years with series like "South Park," "The Shield" and, more recently, "Chappelle's Show" and "Nip/Tuck." They get away with it because cable is technically a pay-per-view service, but the "decency" lines will be snapped taut quite soon if the FCC has its way.
By no means does this mean profanity = humor. It can get really tiring, especially when writers think cursing is funny in its own right. When used correctly, though, profanity can be powerful -- be it powerfully funny ("The Big Lebowski," "Sex and the City") or powerfully dramatic (if the characters in "Boyz N the Hood" said "shoot" and "fudge" for two hours, that movie would have lost all its authenticity and, thus, meaning).
That's why I was so troubled earlier this month by an Associated Press story about ClearPlay, a company selling DVD players with built-in censor chips that block out "objectionable" material. Viewers can pick from four different categories: violence; sex and nudity; language and "other," which includes explicit drug use. So parents can theoretically pick their particular problem areas and they just -- poof! -- disappear. The DVDs have already been screened by ClearPlay employees who, in their obviously infinite wisdom, mark "objectionable" content and then the players are programmed to match. (Updates are available on a subscription basis from the company's Web site as new DVDs hit the market.)
You can probably guess where these DVD players debuted: Yep, Wal-Mart, morality watchdog of the world. The Wonderful World of Wally maintains one of the most hypocritical policies I've ever encountered with its "edited" CD department: How can a company claim the "moral" highground when it comes to music, then sell R-rated movies one aisle over and posters of scantily-clad supermodels an aisle next to that?
Wal-Mart's appeal to "families" is nauseating. If you don't want subject yourself to the profanity, sex, nudity, violence and generally disreputable human beings in "The Sopranos," THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. If you don't want to listen to 50 Cent because he raps about killing people and abusing women, that's fine, too.
But when Wal-Mart cracks down on music under the banner of "good old American values," but leaves Hollywood essentially alone, that's disingenuous -- the entire thing is better off left to police itself and let buyer beware. If you're going to make Nirvana change a song title on the back cover before stocking what turned out to be a landmark album ("In Utero"), then you should demand David Chase change scenes in his landmark television show before you sell it on DVD.
Well, mission: accomplished, I guess, because now the store offers a DVD player that can do that, too.
Wal-Mart's censorship is really just a tangential subject, however; this whole issue comes back to personal choices -- by both the artists and the consumers. I won't watch edited versions of "The Big Lebowski" or "Sex and the City" or "Boyz N the Hood" because the deletions ruin the overall intentions, impressions and impact of the works. Filmmakers worth a salt don't spend years of their lives painstakingly editing each and every second of a two-hour piece just so people can throw pieces away arbitrarily.
I don't understand people who think it's OK to watch these hacked versions but not the originals. If you don't like the work or the people behind it, fine -- but the message doesn't change with omissions.
If parents want to protect their kids from what they perceive to be harmful material, then they should watch the movies for themselves and decide for themselves if they want to fast-forward through a sex scene or a stabbing or whatever when watching the DVDs with their kids (what a concept).
There is definitely a difference between the content of a 50 Cent album and an episode of "The Sopranos," and it has nothing to do with curse words. Cleaning them out is just pandering to people who are too lazy to engage our culture with their own brains and find the message for themselves.